Procurement: A Million UAVs in 2024 for Ukraine


February 14, 2024: Both Ukraine and Russia have embraced cheap, costing a few hundred dollars, UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), and more expensive quadcopters as essential battlefield weapons. This has a lot to do with economy and efficiency. Compared to a 155mm or 152mm artillery shell and the expense of an expensive howitzer to fire these unguided shells 20 or 30 kilometers, armed UAVs are more certain to find and attack enemy troops or vehicles than artillery shells. Artillery still has its uses for long range bombardment of a specific target or more random harassment fire to discourage enemy use of certain roads or off road terrain. FPV (First Person Viewing) UAV control range varies from one to ten kilometers depending on how much electronic jamming or random interference there is. Average range is closer to four or five kilometers. Within these ranges the amount and extent of the damage these UAVs can inflict is enormous, precise, and often decisive in a battle or encounter.

Both Russian and Ukrainian forces are using cheap, about $500 each, quadcopter UAVs controlled by soldiers a kilometer or more away, who use FPV goggles to see what the day/night video camera on the UAV can see. Adding night vision doubles the cost for each UAV, so not all of them have that capability. Each of these UAVs carries half a kilogram of explosives, so it can instantly turn the UAV into a flying bomb that can fly into a target and detonate. This is an awesome and debilitating weapon when used in large numbers over the combat zone. If a target isn’t moving or requires more explosive power that the UAVs can supply, one of the UAV operators can call in artillery, rocket, or missile fire, or even an airstrike. Tanks and infantry obtain some protection from these attacks by erecting a screen above the vehicle or trench line of fox home troops are in. When moving, the troops are vulnerable. For vehicles, multiple UAV attacks will eliminate the overhead screen and damage or destroy the vehicle. Since the UAV operator is viewing all this from the UAV, these attacks are rather devastating.

A major limitation is the need for trained UAV operators. These troops need over a hundred hours of training before they are able to start operating these UAVs, and another hundred hours of actual use before they are able to make the most out of the system. These UAVs are difficult to shoot down until they get close to the ground and the shooter is close enough, as in less than a few hundred meters, away to successfully target a UAV with a bullet or two and bring it down. Troops are rarely in position to do this, so most of these UAVs are able to complete their mission, whether it is a one-way attack or a reconnaissance and surveillance mission. The recon missions are usually survivable and enable the UAV to be reused. All these UAVs are constantly performing surveillance, which means that both sides generally commit enough UAVs to maintain constant surveillance over a portion of the front line, to a depth, into enemy territory, of at least a few kilometers.

This massive use of FPV-armed UAVs has revolutionized warfare in Ukraine and both sides are producing as many as they can. Not having enough of these to match the number the enemy has in a portion of the front means you are at a serious disadvantage in that area. These UAVs are still evolving in terms of design and use and becoming more effective and essential.

One countermeasure that can work for a while is electronic jamming of the UAVs control signal. UAV guidance systems are constantly modified or upgraded to cope with this. Most UAVs have flight control software that sends UAVs with jammed control signals back to where they took off from to land and await. The jammers are on the ground and can be attacked by UAVs programmed to home in on the jamming signal and detonate their explosives on the source of the jamming signal. As a result, even countermeasures can be overcome and the side that can do this more quickly and completely has an advantage. That advantage is usually temporary because both sides are putting a lot of effort into keeping their combat UAVs effective on the battlefield.

Ukraine was not where extensive use of these UAVs first occurred. Innovative use of small UAVs is something that has been going on for several decades and is evolving all the time. This began in 2010 when the French firm Parrot introduced the first consumer friendly quadcopter. By 2017 Parrot had competition from the Chinese firm DJI, which innovated more quickly than anyone else and soon dominated the market for commercial quadcopters. This is why both Russia and Ukraine first turned to Mavic quadcopters as models for new militarized quadcopters they would produce. Both sides soon designed and built their own UAVs or heavily modified commercial models like Mavic. Russian troops had a more difficult time doing this. Russian troops also used Mavic quadcopters, when they could get them. Corruption in Russia made importing Mavic quadcopters difficult. This isn’t just about Mavic because corruption became more widespread in Russia in 2022 when the Ukraine War started, and subsequent sanctions disrupted the Russian economy.

What is worse for Russia is that its national bureaucracy discourages and disrupts any private efforts to design and build not merely UAVs, but private efforts to build most anything which might compete with government ways of building or doing things. This has been true since the 1920s, originally because of the Communist system, then because that was normal even after the Communists were overthrown, and then because such private enterprise interferes with government corruption. Ukrainians have noticed that one of their assets in the war is the disruptive effect Russian bureaucracy has on the Russian military. The Ukrainians are faster in developing new weapons, and particularly new UAVs. The Russians have adapted, as they usually do, to the wartime UAV emergency and adopted more effective procurement practices. These will disappear when the war is over, as most practical measures adopted in wartime tend to do.

While there is some corruption in Ukraine, there is also a lot more popular anger and active opposition to any corruption hurting the war effort. Less corruption in wartime Ukraine means there are a lot more opportunities for innovation without interference from some corrupt official or supplier. Russian troops still had a lot of UAVs but not as many as the Ukrainians, and particularly not with all the innovations found in many Ukrainian UAVs. This made a difference and still does, even though the Russians have been quick to use new forms of jamming to disrupt or destroy Ukrainian UAVs. Both sides suffer heavy, as in the thousands, of UAV losses each month and Ukraine, with NATO support and unencumbered by economic sanctions, is able to maintain a UAV edge on the battlefield.

Ukrainians were particularly adept at modifying quadcopters to carry explosives. If the operator found an enemy tank or lighter armored vehicle with a top hatch open, the vehicle could be destroyed when an explosive was dropped through the open hatch. The explosives were often used against Russian troops in foxholes or open trenches. This capability is bad for Russian morale and the Ukrainians made the most of it.

DJI quadcopters are popular with military customers worldwide, as well as with gangsters, drug smugglers and Islamic terrorists. American forces were banned from using DJI products from 2017 to 2020 because of fears that DJI, which thrives and survives by cooperating with the Chinese government, might have hidden capabilities in the control software that would enable DJI quadcopters to be monitored by the Chinese, especially in wartime. Several years of trying to prove this failed to discover anything and the American ban was quietly dropped.

The ban on military use of DJI quadcopters was not universal, even among NATO countries. But many NATO members did avoid DJI and found that alternatives were more expensive and less capable. For example, in 2021 the French military ordered 300 ANAFI USA micro-UAVs from Parrot, a French firm that is the largest European designer and manufacturer of consumer and commercial UAVs. The ANAFI USA model was developed in response to a 2019 U.S. Army order for a militarized quadcopter that was similar to the banned DJI products. That was considered difficult to do because DJI had a huge head start, especially with flight control software and reliability.

The American military determined that Parrot was best suited for this contract because there were few Western firms as capable as Parrot. The French military spent $36 million not just for the purchase of 300 ANAFI quadcopters. The five-year deal includes Parrot developing new ANAFI features to meet specific needs of army, navy, and air force users.

One of the first users will be French special operations units. The ANAFI quadcopter is a militarized version of a similar, but lighter 300 grams consumer model. ANAFI weighs 500 grams, has endurance of 32 minutes and standard equipment is a day/night vidcam using military-grade communications. Parrot carries two 4K 21 megapixel video camera with 32X zoom and the ability to identify man-sized targets two kilometers distant, plus useful detail in general at up to five kilometers. There is also a thermal sensor on the Parrot that works with the 4k vidcam and enables the operator to see hot spots superimposed over the video image. The flight software is as capable as DJT models and uses no Internet access. An additional security feature is the flight control software being regularly audited to ensure that no new features have compromised security. ANAFI is very quiet and inaudible when about 130 meters away. ANAFI can be ready for use in less than a minute and is designed to be used after brief training. For experienced quad-copter users, ANAFI is very familiar, and training consists of explaining the unique security and military features.

ANAFI is also built to accept accessories that generate digital maps and thermal videos. This kind of flexibility is a major feature of Parrot commercial quadcopters and one reason for its market dominance in Europe. The ANAFI is being delivered to French forces as systems, each with two quadcopters, additional batteries, and operator controllers.

Parrot has become one of the dominant competitors for DJI. There is some other competition in the military market. Since 2015 Israeli firms have designed and built several quadcopters for military and police use. In 2016 the Israeli military bought some locally made Rotem L UAVs for their infantry to use in urban combat. Rotem L is a lightweight 4.5 kg quadcopter based on commercial designs, but modified so that it not only carries the usual day/night cameras but can also replace the cameras with two 450g grenades which can be armed and released by operator command. With 30-minute endurance and easily learned operation, Rotem L can be carried (in a case) by one man, set up and ready to go in a minute or so and recovered for reuse. The controller has a range of up to 10 kilometers but in a dense urban environment, the max range is more like 1,500 meters. The major advantage of Rotem L is that it is quiet and can be flown through open doors or windows. Carrying one or no grenades allows Rotem L to stay airborne for up to 45 minutes. The grenades can be triggered while still aboard Rotem L to provide a self-destruct mechanism. If Rotem L lands with live grenades aboard, the operator can double-check the armed status of the grenades before recharging it for another mission. Rotem L can be used unarmed by police or carry tear gas and flash-bang grenades. Rotem L is expensive, costing over $10,000 each. Military users prefer to use it equipped with vidcams and use the cruise missile option only when forced to. Israel firms offer less expensive unarmed quadcopters for military and police use.

Parrot was competitive with the Israeli designs and offered to build ANAFI USA in the U.S. as well as demonstrating it could incorporate military-grade security features and a quadcopter that matched Israeli and Chinese designs in flexibility, features, and price. Parrot had another advantage because France was a NATO member, and this made it easier for French firms to meet NATO standards that enabled all NATO members to easily purchase Parrot UAVs.

NATO troops in places like Syria, Iraq, Mali, and Afghanistan found that both Islamic terrorist and local security forces were eager users of high-end Chinese-made DJI commercial quadcopters. A particular favorite is DJI Matrice 200/210. This is an industrial-grade quadcopter costing up to $20,000 each. The DJI 210 weighs 4.7 kg and can carry up to 1.45 kg of cameras, additional batteries, or improvised weapons. Max endurance is about 30 minutes and top speed is 60 kilometers an hour. When under user control the 210 can operate up to eight kilometers away although five kilometers is more common. The 210 can be programmed to use its GPS/GLONASS navigation system to cover a specific route and return. If the control system is lost for any reason, the quadcopter will automatically return to where it started and land. The 210 is mainly used for surveillance and reconnaissance though some have been equipped with an explosive dispenser. Anything from grenades to IEDs/Improvised Explosive Devices can be used. The 210 can be rigged as a one-way cruise-missile but that is expensive and increasingly common with groups backed by Iran as well as other well-funded Islamic terrorists. High-end models like the 210 are favored because they are rugged and can handle wind and incorporate obstacle avoidance. This is important when operating in urban areas, forests or at night using a night-vision camera.

While popular with Islamic terrorists, gangsters and less-well equipped police and military units, Western forces tended to avoid DJI products because of fears that China may have ordered the manufacturer to include secret features that would allow the Chinese military to disable or take-control of DJI products. No one has ever found such a back door in the quadcopter software and these Chinese quadcopters, especially those made by DJI, are the most popular models worldwide. That’s because DJI models offered are the best value as well as being the most reliable.

Sometimes these bans were issued after troops had already obtained and were using DJI quadcopters. For example, in early 2018 the U.S. Marine Corps announced a new squad and platoon organization, based on its experience so far this century, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the unique changes to the new 12-man squad was that each one would get a commercial quadcopter. These were smaller, more compact models costing less than two thousand dollars each. The Marines had already bought 600 and ordered another 200 when the U.S. Department of Defense ordered a ban on the use of Chinese quadcopters. The Marines did manage to get an exemption to the new ban and sought government approval to purchase commercial quadcopters. These are out there but none as inexpensive as the Chinese models. The complaints about the DJI ban from military users in the United States and other NATO countries played a role in the ban being lifted in 2020.

The U.S. Army banned the use of DJI quadcopters in 2017. The troops had been encountering these DJI quadcopters in combat zones for years and some troops had bought them with their own money to use them successfully in combat. It’s no secret that DJI quadcopters have been showing up in combat zones with increasing frequency since 2014. Initially the most popular of these was the DJI Phantom quadcopter. Phantom 3 showed up in 2015. It costs about a thousand dollars, weighs 3.9 kg, can stay in the air about 20 minutes per flight and can go up to 2,000 meters from the operator. The operator can see (at 720p resolution) what is under the Phantom using a small display and capture a higher 2.7k/1080p resolution video on a 16 GB micro memory card on the UAV. The Phantom 3 was widely available. It is easy to operate and has flight control software that makes it easy to operate and keeps the video image stable. You can equip these with a night vision camera. Max altitude is over 500 meters, but most Phantoms operate lower down because getting to higher altitude takes time.

DJI kept upgrading its Phantom line of quadcopters from the moment the first one hit the market in 2013. The Phantom 1 was basically a quadcopter you could add your own GoPro wireless vidcam to. But every few months DJI added new features and major upgrades were introduced as a new model. Phantom 2 appeared at the end of 2013, Phantom 3 in early 2015 and Phantom 4 a year later. Phantom 3 was the most popular model and Phantom 4 was basically a Phantom 3 with lots more capabilities like 4K video, video transmission range of five kilometers and a higher price of about $1,500 each. New models of the Phantom continued to appear, sometimes just with a few new features and a lower price. New features include collision avoidance sensors and software. The Phantom line was replaced by the Mavic and Matrice, which included low price Mavic and high end Matrice models. Year by year the capabilities of the DJI quadcopters increased and the troops were not happy that they could not use them, but the enemy could and did.

For combat troops cost is an important feature because something low-cost and capable in the combat zone equipment is quickly worn out. This is especially true with quadcopters. As a result, the troops have become accustomed to buying commercial products whenever they can get away with it.

America does not have a viable quadcopter industry because its cumbersome technological export rules prevent American companies from exporting their products to foreign markets. We have our own troublesome bureaucracies.




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